My home away from my home away from home

My research is taking place in a really remote corner of Malawi, right on the border with Zambia. It is about 1 hour by car from the nearest paved road, and there is no electricity or running water. Thus, my research team is putting up in the nearest trading center, on the main tar road, which is called Nkhamenya. I have no idea what the population is like, but it’s a pretty standard small town in Malawi: a few resthouses, one small “super” market, no banks, one filling station which rarely has fuel even without a fuel crisis, and lots of dust.

I am currently staying in said small town for about 2 weeks while the project is getting up and running. There are two guesthouses to choose from in town. The first, Pilirani, is where I stayed last year. It costs $3 per night, and offers really small cell-like rooms. The bathrooms are drop toilets (hole in the ground) and are shared by all the rooms. You use a bucket to bath, also in shared outdoor huts. There is no running water, only a borehole in the parking lot. Perhaps all this I could deal with, but what I cannot deal with is the attached bar, which is the most popular in town. The upside of the bar is that it means that the owners run a generator at night if the power is off, to keep the beers cold and the men drinking. The downside is that at any given moment I’d estimate that at least half of the 20 odd rooms is being used for prostitution, and there are drunk men all over the place until all hours of the night. This makes for an uncomfortable situation when you have to go piss in the hole in the ground in the middle of the night.

Bonus points for you if you can find any pattern in the numbering of rooms.

So, this year I opted for the more expensive Nkhamenya Lodge. Rooms here will run you from $6 a night up to $27 a night. At the lower end, it is a basic room using shared drop toilets (again, hole in the ground). For $15, though, you can have your own bathroom. Since Nkamenya does not have piped water, Nkhamenya uses an electric pump to pump water up into a tank from a borehole. This means, in theory, that you can have flush toilets and a shower. But, in practice I still use a bucket to flush the toilet, and still take a bucket shower since the tap water is icy cold and the guard will warm water for me in a bucket. Still, I have my own bathroom, and don’t have to venture outside in the middle of the night.

It's not clear if this water will make me cleaner or dirtier.

The main drawback of Nkhamenya Lodge is that it was built on a mosquito breeding ground. The first night I stayed there, I killed upwards of 50 mosquitos, but I think that’s because they were breeding in the standing water in my bathroom. After I scrubbed the bathroom with a toilet brush, and then dried all the standing water, the next day I only killed about three. Thankfully there is a mosquito net in my room (even if it is lined in pink fur).

The five guys working on the project opted to rent a house for the two month period. This proved difficult, since there were very few houses for rent in town. We finally found one where the owner had just moved back in after his last tenants moved out. As my research supervisor noted just upon seeing the guy from the distance, luckily the owner “likes money.” So, they arranged with him to move his family next door, into an unfinished house he had started to build. From the rent money, he will finish the second house, so supposedly it’s a win-win. I feel a little sorry for the wife and kids though. But I learned a long time ago that it’s not really my place to intervene on these types of things. I considered just staying with the guys, but there are already 5 of them in a small, 3 roomed house, so I didn’t want to take up any of their space and/or make them feel uncomfortable by me being around all the time. No one wants to live with their boss, especially when their boss is a whiney, hungry, clueless azungu.

Only a few more days, and then Joachim will take a 8-10 hour bus trip up here, and together we’ll drive 4 hours to a new part of the lake that is supposed to be lovely. I think I’ll have earned it.

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